GZA & Sabrina Chevannes on Hip-Hop/Chess
Adisa Banjoko launched the Hip-Hop Chess Federation back in 2007 and had the desire to bridge his passion for hip-hop, martial arts, and chess. He held tournaments, taught classes, and arranged a hip-hop exhibit at the World Chess Hall of Fame.
Adisa Banjoko’s Hip-Hop Chess Federation
was the cover story of February 2012
U.S. Chess Life magazine.
The East Bay area native has ties to the legendary Tupac Shakur, the Wu-Tang Clan, and the Gracie jiu-jitsu family, and is currently spending time in England developing content, teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and working on literary projects. A year ago he conducted an interview with WuTang co-founder RZA and former British prodigy Sabrina Chevannes to discuss hip-hop and chess. After being lost, he recently unearthed this golden segment.
Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA, UK chess champion and author
talk rap, race and reality!
By Adisa Banjoko
Image copyright by Mike Relm
The game of chess has exploded in the world over the last 20 years. Since the release of the stunning Netflix film Queen’s Gambit the discussion of women and chess has gone to truly stellar heights. Few know that the game of chess was brought into Europe by the Moors in 700 AD. Even fewer know that Hip-hop music celebrates chess more than any other kind of music in the history of the earth. Jay- Z, Drake, Eminem and 2 Chainz have all mentioned chess in their music over the years. Nas recently released a beautiful and mind-bending video centered around chess on the song Rare. However, none have captured the fusion of chess and Hip-hop like the Wu-Tang Clan.
Sadly, in many modern conversations about the new chess explosion the role of Hip-hop seems to be deliberately excluded. Additionally, conversations on and about Black women in chess have also been ignored. So, I sat down with two unquestionable authorities on the topic. Multi-Platinum rapper GZA from Wu-Tang Clan (who just finished participating in a striking new video made by Virgil Abloh for iconic fashion brand Louis Vuitton) and Black chess champion and chess author Sabrina Chevannes from Great Britain. We talk about the impact of chess on art and fashion as well as the issue of race on the 64 squares of infinite combat.
Jiu-jitsu master Alan “Gumby” Marques, GZA of Wu-Tang Clan and Adisa Banjoko in SF.
Adisa Banjoko: GZA, you’ve made so many songs that reference chess, but obviously Liquid Swords is the cornerstone, I think, album for most people that started discussing this relationship between chess and hip-hop on a very deep level. At what point did you come up with the idea to do the album and was chess always there in the beginning, or did chess evolve out of your lyrical pursuit of making this record?
GZA: Chess was there from the beginning because it was there from the time I started playing the game. I started playing in ’91, ’92 with Masta Killa, the album didn’t come out until ’95. I recorded the album ’94, and it dropped in ’95. But if you look at the cover itself, the Liquid Swords cover, is a chess board, it’s a game of chess being played. That’s why you see the white and dark squares on the board. You see a guy with a flying guillotine, you see another person, the king, with the sword. You see the queen in the background hovering above the board, I had to make sure the queen was on the board. But the concept, it’s kind of interesting how the concept came about. I was, once again, I was playing Masta Killa a game of chess. We may have played for about eight hours this day. And it was in an apartment I was staying in.
And during those early days, he used to beat up on me all the time, Fool’s Mates. There were a couple of Fool’s Mates, Scholar’s Mates [chess traps to win quickly]. Yeah, he was getting me. And it was a time where… I mean, sometimes the games would end so quickly, that there were a lot of pieces on the board in the checkmate position, especially if there was a Scholar’s Mate.
So one time we had finished playing and he had left, and I was sitting there and I was starring at the board and it was in a checkmate position, and I was looking at the pieces and then I went and got some construction paper and I started sketching the pieces, how they were on the board. And I started sketching them, and I said being that the bishops… They kind of come to a point at the top, I said, well that was a hoodie on someone’s head. What if the flying guillotine was bringing in the kung fu element? I said, “What if the knight was actually a horse with a knight on it with a flying guillotine? I started imagining it, but I couldn’t… I’m not good at drawing like that.
I can copy stuff, but I can’t just draw off my head. And pieces are not hard to sketch at all. I mean, they’re simple. Especially if they’re standard pieces, a pawn is a pawn, a bishop is a bishop, you can distinguish each one of them. They all look different. A pawn doesn’t look like a rook.
So this [art] was simple. And I started sketching the pieces, and then I said, wow. And then I said… Originally, I said, this would be great for a cover down into the Wu-Tang drop in ’93. And this was around the time… This was probably ’93 or ’94 when I started sketching this. And at the time I thought it would be great for the Mystery of Chessboxing song. I just thought it would be a great cover, and then I said, no, this is bigger than a cover for a single. This should be the cover for an album, distributor cover for my album Liquid Swords.
And the title itself came from a Kung-Fu flick, which wasn’t one of the greatest flicks, but I just liked the title. It was called Legend of the Liquid Sword. Legend of the Liquid Sword. So that’s where I got the title from. And then Math did some sketching for me, but he didn’t do the cover. He did some of the sketching that was in the insert, and the CD cover. And somehow the manager that I had at the time, Jeffrey Godfield, he happened to somehow get in touch with Dennis Collins. He was illustrating for, not Marvel, but DC Comics at the time. So I told him my idea and that’s how the album cover came together.
AB: That’s probably one of the best hip-hop album covers in the history of the game. Like straight up. I’d have to put it that in my top three of all-time, of hip-hop album covers.
GZA: I wanted it to be something that would stand out, like it does. I mean, if you think about it, it’s like a comic book cover.
AB: Sabrina, you are a decorated chess player in the UK and author of Batsford Book of Chess for Children. Talk about your introduction to chess and tell us where it took you.
Sabrina Chevannes: Okay. I probably started playing chess, I was probably about eight years old. My dad taught me. My dad just loved the game, and he was never a grandmaster or anything. He never ever played competition or anything like that either, he just kind of liked the game. He taught myself and my brothers. And my brothers are much older than me, so they’ve always been role models in my life. You want to copy everything they do, you know what it’s like?
Sabrina Chevannes is a champion chess player from the UK and a tech entrepreneur.
AB: What year would this have been?
SC: Oh God. 94, around then. I guess, 94, 95. And so yeah, then my dad taught me how to play, took me to a tournament. And I remember I won. I won a medal at my very first tournament, and it was so exciting. I remember it so well because my dad wouldn’t let me stay prize-giving. He was like, “You haven’t won a prize, let’s just go home.”
He didn’t want to be stuck in the traffic. So he was like, let’s just go home. You’re not going to… I was like, I really want to see prize giving. I’ve never been to one. I want to go. And I remember my name getting called up to win a medal. I ran all to the guy snatched the medal out of the hand of the guy, waving it to my dad, going, “Look, look, look!”
I was so happy. And I remember that moment, like it was yesterday. And it was like 25 years ago, or whenever.
SC: There were different ways. So when I was a kid, like I said, it would be my dad or someone would come and tell me the moves, or something like that. That’s what they’d assume. And nowadays it’s computer assistance. So it was really funny… Excuse me. It was really funny because there was, I think, one of the best times of my life, I’ve had, or like when I got norms. You have to get norms, like the performances to get a title. And whenever I did, people would say, “Oh, she’s taking her computer into the toilet to check the engines”
AB: Right. They think you’re taking breaks so that you can use a computer to measure what the best move should be.
SC: Yeah. And, I don’t spend a lot of time at the board as well. I’m always like going to get coffee, I go for breaks and stuff, but people can see me. I’m talking whatever to people. But it was quite funny, because they accused me at this tournament and it was… I remember one guy was like, just flat out just said it to my face. He was like, I want to see your computer. And I was like, okay. So I took out my computer at that time, and I opened it and it’s completely smashed. The whole screen is completely smashed.
I didn’t even have a working computer. What was ironic is that I never prepared for games. I was lazy. I was a terrible person when it came to studying, but I didn’t even have like ChessBase [a digital game for improving your skill] or anything on my computer.
AB: Right. You didn’t even have the equipment that it would take to cheat. Right?
SC: So it was like so stupid. And even on my phone, they were saying,… I was like, I don’t even have a chess app on my phone. It was so dumb. This is what was ridiculous.
AB: I cannot imagine what it was like having to deal with that kind of bias just because they did not want to lose to a Black woman. How do you like Queen’s Gambit on Netflix?
SC: I love The Queen’s Gambit. I feel like that’s the first time though I’ve ever seen a show depicting chess in such a positive manner. I think anything that can encourage more women to play chess is a good thing.
Closing with GZA
AB: GZA, you’re always doing something new. I know you just got back from France. Can you talk about what you were doing with Louis Vuitton over in France? And then tell me what’s coming next for you.
GZA: I was actually part of the Louis Vuitton fashion show that they had for the men’s clothing for 2022 summer.
It was interesting. I’ve never done anything on that level. I mean, fashion can be really out there and weird at times, but it was another honor. I was honored to be part of it. Virgil Abloh, who is a big guy in the fashion department, he actually wanted me to be part of it and his team.
And they were Wu fans and GZA fans growing up. And they actually used, I don’t know if you saw it yet, but they actually… Since COVID, they found a new way to do fashion shows now, where they’re actually making mini short movies. So this was a 15-, 16-minute piece. And it was written with the idea of Liquid Sword in mind. So at the beginning of this long video is the skit from my album Liquid Sword. There’s a little boy that’s speaking- from shogun assassin. And I was able to be on the set and play chess, which is what it goes back to, something I love doing. So in the video, you see me at a chess board playing with one of the models, female, and I’m playing chess and I’m reciting… They’re playing Fourth Chamber.
I actually get to do my verse from Fourth Chamber, and then the verse from Wu Banga 101 on the same track while the models are moving around and standing there. So it’s actually part of the fashion show. And then I also did another piece, I recorded the verse from Liquid Swords in another setting. In another setting, which was all these trees. It was in a soundstage, but there were all these trees, and had this winter cold feel to it.
But I would say, my inspiration comes from… I can get inspiration from chess, but chess… The game of life is chess. I often hear of several grandmasters and great chess players say that they don’t even make certain decisions without even thinking about the game of chess, because it’s so much a part of their life. Going back to the story of Sabrina, one of the interesting things that she also mentioned like how chess is depicted in The Queen’s Gambit in such a great and unique way. It’s also getting those that don’t play chess interested in the game.
Chess does a lot for children, and especially if they learn young while playing. The critical thinking, the decision-making, the analyzing, the risk. So just thinking of the game of chess is inspiring in itself, because you can apply many different things in your own world or around you that may apply to the game. So chess is inspiring!
Adisa Banjoko is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and chess teacher moving between the SF Bay Area and London, UK. He just launched 64 Blocks, LLC which fuses jiu-jitsu, meditation, and chess. Follow him on IG @real64blocks.
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Author of books you never heard of + BJJ black belt instructor, meditator, chess teacher, stoic podcaster.
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